19 May 2014

The Galápagos Islands : Three Highlights

Three highlights. Tricky. The Galápagos is really, truly an amazing place, and the trip was everything we could have hoped for and more. So to filter through it all and narrow it down to blog-sized chunks? Tricky. 

A bit of background - we did it on a boat. A smallish boat (as cruises go), a biggish boat (as the Galápagos goes). We had to book it nearly 18 months ago, it books out that far in advance. Yes, it was expensive, but yes, it was worth it. These guys have been touring the islands for ten years and they seem to have found the right balance between protecting and preserving this unique environment and allowing you to experience it. I'll tell you more about the how of visiting the Galápagos in a later post, but for now - we ate and slept on the boat and every morning and every afternoon we headed out on zodiacs to visit different islands; to hike, snorkel, swim. 

We saw nine different islands (and they were all very different), two towns, a tortoise breeding centre, a museum, and countless sea lions, blue footed boobies, marine and land iguanas, whales, sea turtles, penguins, lava lizards, frigate birds, finches… 

The organisation on the boat was incredible; getting everyone on and off so smoothly and coordinating all the different activities. And the animals were incredible, they really did have no fear of humans; you really did have to watch your step to avoid tripping over an iguana or baby sea lion. Amazing. (A warning - I'll be using that word a lot in this post...)

1. North Seymour Island (Day Five) 
We spent a few hours on this island one afternoon as the sun was setting. I could have spent a week there. It was the kind of place that left me wide eyed and stumbling, my brain numb from it. It was like the land that time forgot; in the best possible way it didn't quite seem real.

Picture this - you step off the zodiac on to a rocky dirt path and have to be dragged away from cooing over three baby sea lions lazing on the rocks. Overhead hundreds of frigate birds are circling, looking for a mate; the males with their red throat pouches inflated. There are large nests everywhere, some with giant white fluffy chicks in them looking slightly stunned and very adorable. 

You walk a little further and have to give way to a land iguana, nearing a metre in length. Then you round a corner and there's three male blue footed boobies competing for a mate. You stop to watch it play out - the males dancing, the female nonchalant.

Further down the path you hit the beach. There's more boobies dancing and frigatebirds nesting and large iguanas eating, and now you can hear the sea lions playing in the waves. And as the sun sets they start coming in, clambering over the rocks and calling for their pups. And just as your naturalist is urging you back to the zodiac, because you've been dragging your heels trying to soak it all in, a beautiful brown pelican soars past. Sigh. Amazing. 

Even if the rest of the trip had been a dud (which it wasn't!), those few hours on North Seymour Island would have been worth the price of admission alone (just writing this makes me want to go back!).

2. Isabela Island (Day Three) 
Isabela Island is the largest; it's the one that looks like a seahorse. We stopped at two places, with a morning zodiac ride in Elizabeth Bay and an afternoon snorkel and hike in Tagus Cove. 

The zodiac ride was through a mangrove forest - the water still and clear, and the green of the mangroves was quite stunning against the black lava flows. This was where we had our first sighting of green sea turtles, gliding by the zodiac. And where we spotted our first Galápagos penguins, perched on rocks and swimming about looking for their breakfast. Brown pelicans, herons and blue footed boobies where also in the mix. It was a really beautiful, peaceful place. 

There there was the snorkel off Tagus Cove. We jumped off the zodiac straight into the water and followed the coast along for 40 minutes or so. We've snorkelled off Heron Island in Australia, a nesting site for sea turtles, and we got super excited when we spotted one lonely turtle in the water. In the Galápagos we also got super excited when we saw one lonely turtle in the water. And then there were two, and three, and four, and...well, I lost count. Gorgeous, big green sea turtles everywhere! Floating a metre or so below us, nibbling on seagrass, moving with the ebb and flow of the waves. They were so close we had to manoeuvre to avoid collisions (I imagine a turtle shell to the noggin would hurt a bit!). 

There were also sea lions, curious and wanting to play. They swam right up and looked us in the eye. A-ma-zing. We also saw penguins diving under water (I tried to follow them but they were ridiculously fast). And all along the coast, when we popped our heads above the water, there were marine iguanas basking and sea lions lazing and all kinds of birdlife. Once again, I could have snorkelled for hours. Amazing. Sigh.

3. Cerro Brujo, San Cristobal Island (Day Six) 
We spent a rather relaxed afternoon on this beautiful white sand beach. The water was warm, blue and absurdly clear, the views spectacular and the sea lions laid back (except for one who got a bit cranky with the husband!). Pretty close to paradise, I think.

ps. Can you spot the marine iguanas in that last shot?

06 May 2014

True Story : I Wrestled A Gator!*

I'm back! After nearly a month travelling in Florida and the Galapagos Islands I'm back at home, with the dogs and the builders and the dust (I'd forgotten about the dust!). It was a pretty amazing trip - the Galapagos Islands were everything we'd hoped for and more. But before I get into the (relatively) highbrow, nature lovers paradise that was the Galapagos I wanted to tell you that I wrestled an alligator

Well...I sort of wrestled an alligator. Okay, I didn't actually wrestle it. At all. Our guide and the step-sons wrangled the gator, I just sat on it (which, on reflection, just sounds a bit weird really…) 

Let's back up a bit. We had to go to Orlando for a convention, and we had a day or two to spare. The accepted thing to do when you go to Orlando is visit the theme parks. But the thought of dealing with all those crowds and queues and the awful theme park food had us slightly terrified. Not to mention the fact that I hate roller coasters. So instead we booked a behind the scenes tour at the wonderfully named Gatorland

I'll be honest and say our expectations were lowish going in, but it turned out to be completely, utterly awesome. Our guide was hilarious and passionate and clearly loved the reptilian critters he worked with every day. He regaled us with tales of dog eating gators and croc handling slip ups and rescuing cockatoos from hungry jaws. 

We met a giant tortoise who liked having his neck scratched; a baby gator, a small scorpion and a very big spider; and a family of incredibly rare white gators. We got to do things that felt like they were right on the edge of safe. We stood on a sandy island and threw chunks of meat at a hoard of giant hungry gators; in the middle of a gator infested pond there was just us and two guys with sticks and a bucket of meat. And then we got rather hands on with one especially accommodating fellow. It's not an opportunity to say no to is it? 

Ps. If you go gator wrestling do make sure you wear a more appropriate outfit than I did. Jeans and a tee would have much more suitable than my shortish dress… 
*Sort of